Monday, December 22, 2014

Norman Boutin: A Case Study on How Not to Take Criticism

Every artist, of whatever genre or medium, has to deal with criticism. No matter who you are, there is going to be someone out there who is going to dislike your work, and there is going to be at least one person who absolutely hates it. Long story short, you are going to experience some negativity. Now, of course, negativity can a good thing: sometimes we need hard truths, and sometimes we need someone to point out our errors so that we can learn from them and improve our craft. On the flip side, there is also unhelpful or unedifying criticism that is best to just dismiss (for example, someone who reads a romance novel set in the 19th century and gets mad that there are no giant fighting robots should probably be ignored). Due to these two circumstances, being able to not only weed through criticism, but also to take what is helpful and learn from it, becomes an important part of any artist's life.

In regards to criticism in general, there are many ways you can respond to it: you can go the J.K. Rowling route and humbly accept it; you can go the Douglas Adams route and laugh it off; or you can go the George R.R. Martin route and shoot your critics the bird before moving on with life. One of the most important things to remember, however, is that you never have a meltdown. You never go on a crusade to end all criticism or defend your cause. You never let some angry person on the internet ruin your life. Some even suggest not even responding unless it's directed towards you, but to take the critique to heart nonetheless.

Some authors, especially in the Indie market, have chosen to ignore all of this. This blog post is an examination of one of them.

A while ago, I was introduced to an Indie author by the name of Norman Boutin, and a book of his entitled Empress Theresa. I first came across him in a post on Lousy Book Covers, where he had a scuffle with the website owner, Nathan. Long story short, he was "daring" Nathan to post the latest cover art for his book to the website, going so far as to say "I know you won’t." When Nathan did, Boutin gave this response:
Nathan, That is not the latest cover. It is the KINDLE edition cover which hasn’t been updated yet ( except in the KINDLE Store ) The latest cover can be seen in the Paperback version. The sky is a darker blue than in the version you showed. In any case, you didn’t put it up at the head of the thread where it should be and where it would be seen by people. I knew you wouldn’t. It would make your sad cover designs look ridiculous. Latest cover design can be seen on empresstheresa.com, [emphasis mine]
In case you didn't click on the Lousy Book Covers link yet, this is the cover art he's talking about:


"Notice how far better it is than the graphic design junk you sell to naive writers." [Exact quote from the author]

One need only Google his name (or the book's name) to find out just how highly he sees his own work. Of course, there's nothing wrong with taking pride in your writing, but Mr. Boutin reaches whole new levels of narcissism. He sincerely believes that his work is better and attracts more readers than classics like Brave New World or Anne of Green Gables. I'm not kidding. If you think I'm exaggerating, here is a direct quote from Mister Boutin himself:
I've noticed that on lists of books assigned to high school English classes, lists collected by academic services,  among the books read in class are such stories as George Orwell's 1984, Orwell's Animal Farm, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. A 16 year old high school girl a few miles from here read 1984 in her school. Really?  I'm astonished!  How infinitely more interesting and entertaining the students would have found Empress Theresa. [source; emphasis mine]
And another quote:
I have an idea.
Put the following books side by side on a table:
Empress Theresa
Little Women
Silas Marner
Anne of Green Gables
Tom Sawyer
Huckleberry Finn
and Gone With the Wind
Have the students vote **BY SECRET BALLOT !!** on which book to assign to the class.
Let me know how it turned out. [source]
Since Boutin believes that his book is the next American classic (even saying on some occasions that there will be a movie), it would be expected that he's less than happy about the widespread criticism it has received. On forums, he'll readily respond to anyone who suggests a less than enthusiastic opinion of his work, and on Amazon he's replied to nearly every single review. Reading through his replies, you tend to notice a pattern in how he treats negative criticism:
  • If you criticize the book, or bring up criticism of it, he'll ask you to read his sample chapters and "judge for yourself" how good it is.
  • If you follow his advice and read the sample chapters, or Amazon's sample chapters, and dislike it, he'll disregard your opinion since you didn't read the whole book. (In the realm of logical fallacies, this is called moving the goalposts).
  • If you have read the whole book, and still don't like it, he'll still dismiss your opinion, and for any arbitrary reason he will find.
Reading Boutin's responses to those who post negatively about his book, his personality comes across very much like those people you find in art class reviews who have literally an excuse or response to every critique from their peers. They will continually say things like "Oh, you just don't get my metaphor" or "No, it's supposed to be that way." Almost every supposed fault has an excuse or an explanation that is meant to automatically negate it. Now granted, there may be times when there is a legitimate explanation for an artist's otherwise unorthodox aesthetic tactics...but when every single bit of criticism is met with a quick and rash defense, it begins to reveal more about the artist than it does about the art. What's more, if you try to tell them about this, or point it out, they defend themselves with "I'm just responding to you" or "I'm just showing you're wrong." In their mind, a habitual defense against every accusation or critique is a perfectly normal thing.

From Mr. Boutin's own personal discussions with his critics, one thing is certain: any perceived issues are never because of him. It never appears that Boutin even entertains the notion that there might be a problem with his book. It never seems to dawn on him, "You know, some of these people may have a point." He does not seem to have the capability to say, "There are a lot of complaints about this specific problem - let me change this to minimize this problem." If you want to know how far this goes, keep in mind that he will even defend his typos! I am not making this up: when people point out the typos in his book, he will argue that other authors have typos in their books (source); his conclusion is obviously that no one should complain about his, since other authors have made typos.

More telling is how insulting Boutin gets towards those who criticize his book. For someone who thinks his book is a wonderful showcasing of how a good Roman Catholic is to behave, it does not seem below the author to employ ad hominems and personal attacks against his critics. Some examples of this:
What really amazes me is that you say you're Catholic. It doesn't show. [source]

A kid's website, full of stuff to sell to kids to help dissipate their going-nowhere lives. [source; regarding the TV Tropes page on his book]

Next Fall, the next school year, all the trash you've written here, on TVtropes, and on Amazon will exposed for the trash it is. You credibility will go down the toilet. [source]

You're jealous because I had a great idea for a novel, because knowing it was an idea that could only be used once I spent years fine tuning it to make it the best writing possible, because it reaches the kids without blatant preaching, because you know you couldn't write something anywhere near as good, and so you attack my work using every device you can think of, spending enormous amounts of time to attack a stranger you'll never meet who lives on the other side of the world in a nice, quiet corner of the greatest country in the world. [source]

He's arrested at the spoiled, rotten 12 year old kid level. No matter how old he gets, he'll always behave at the 12 year old level. [source]

I've never seen such rude and crude people! Forty years ago I worked in a factory. Those people were much more civil and refined than this bunch. [source

I could have given PM Scherzer inner conflicts and weaknesses to make him more "interesting", according to the cliche advice I get here. [source]

I learned how conscience-less some people can be in trashing a message they don't like. [source]

Go back to your galactic war sci/fi stories, Tom.You will never understand a book like Empress Theresa. [source]

I came home today with the intention of writing an UNHAPPY NEW YEAR ! post to these lying haters, explaining to all what's wrong with them and why these lonely people whom nobody can like have to look for company on the internet but can't even stand each other either and never talk to each other. [source]

You're full of hot air and other stuff, Tom. [source]

Aw shut up! [source]
Even more astounding is the conspiratorial nature that Boutin takes towards much of his criticism. If you make a mistake, or misunderstand something from his book, he'll accuse you of "lying", purposefully spreading misinformation, or actively suppressing the truth. He'll often accuse critics of being part of an anti-Catholic, anti-theistic, anti-Norman Boutin conspiracy out to stop the "message" of Empress Theresa. He fears that those who are especially outspoken against the book are brainwashing other people against him. In case you think I am exaggerating or misrepresenting him, here are some examples (and keep in mind, these are said in absolute seriousness - he's not trolling):
These atheists from catholic.com, or whoever they are, won't stop the truth about the book from getting out. [source]

You're young and you're being fooled by the rantings of RPRPsych. He's playing mind games with all of us. [source]

Are you exchanging private messages with this guy? Don't do it. Don't let him get in your head. [source]

The atheists must really fear and hate this book. [source]

These people follow me all over the internet, even to websites I'd forgotten myself. [source]

Who are these people? They're from various 'writer's forums' I joined over the years. When I announced the paperback edition, suddenly there they were waiting to trash it. From my experience on those 'writer's forums' which contain thousands of members, I know that some of these people, those incapable or writing anything more serious than a vampire story, zombie story, or something of that kind, can be very negative in trashing a work that looks promising. It's envy. There's no limit to what they will do to spoil things.  [source]

This has been a concerted effort by people with an agenda to kill the spiritual message of the book they heard about on the internet for years. [source]

When one of my posts gets deleted, it's because I told the truth. People around here don't want you to learn the truth. [source]

For whatever reason, jealousy, anti-religious feelings, pure devilishness, or whatever, you want to kill the book. [source]
On this same note, let me say that yes, I have read the book. Or tried to read it. I eventually stopped because, to be perfectly frank, it gets really boring and tedious. You can read my review here, if you're curious. I go into detail about the problems I found within the book, and why I stopped reading. And before you ask...yes, Mr. Boutin responded to my review. He provided several responses, most of which I simply chose to ignore, because I have seen how he deals with criticism on the other reviews, and I have come to the conclusion that attempting to even engage in civil conversation with him is akin to nailing jello on the wall. However, one part that stood out to me, and which is related to this topic of his conspiracy theory forming mind, was this:
QUOTE Then you have the Prime Minister known as Peter Blair. While I understand from reading the author's comments elsewhere.......[[[[[ Ahah! Gotcha. 'elsewhere', hunh? Like I indicated earlier, this negative reviewer is taking bits and pieces from everywhere instead of just writing a valid review based on the book's own merits without prior knowledge. ]]]]]........ that he meant the character as an homage to Tony Blair... [source]
This accusation flabbergasted me. Yes, I had done research on Mr. Boutin's antics and arguments (as most of this post shows); however, part of this was to try to understand his point of view. My reference to having read his comments about Peter Blair "elsewhere" was simply to show that, from a source outside his book, I read an explanation of his regarding a character. I do this with any artist or author, because I like to understand where they're coming from. It's why I listen to DVD commentaries, and it's why I read artist biographies. In the past, I've even tweeted questions to authors before writing reviews because I wanted their own clarification on certain things. My point in bringing this up is to show that Mr. Boutin could not simply say, "Oh, that was nice of him to do research on me." Nope. It's a conspiracy. I'm just going around, digging up dirt on him, and not basing my opinion on any knowledge of "the book's own merits". Again, it's all a giant conspiracy to him. Everyone who doesn't like his book has an agenda and is out to ruin his cause.

The sad thing is that some people have attempted to reach out to him, and help him to get his book edited either through classes or professional assistance. Thus far, he has spurned all advice. As I wrote before, there seems very little admittance on his part that his book could be improved. By contrast, I've known of plenty of authors (professional and Indie) who lament errors or mistakes in their books they wish they could change. Heck, the wife of Frank Frazetta, one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, had to put a lock on his museum door because he was sneaking in and touching up some of his most famous paintings. Yes, even someone like Frank Frazetta would tell you that he's not entirely happy with some of his work. Yet there are those out there like Mr. Boutin who think their work is above criticism, and is absolutely perfect. If you think the book is somehow lacking, that's a problem with you, rather than the book.

Of course, it's real easy to enter the realm of schadenfreude, where we all point and laugh at someone else's shortcoming. However, I believe instances like this are a good moment to pause and think, "Wait a minute...am I like that?" I have to look at this and wonder if I feel the need to respond to every single critic. I have to ask myself if maybe I have an excuse for every single critique I receive. I have to review how I take criticism on a large scale, and see whether or not I presume it is all a giant conspiracy by a large group of people. I have to look at how I respond to a person's critique, and make certain I am not misrepresenting them, or jumping to conclusions.

The worst thing we can do is not learn from the mistakes of others; we'll spend so much time laughing at someone else that we'll forget we're staring right in a mirror. Let's take a moment like this to sit back and examine ourselves, and see if, just perhaps, we struggle with this as well.

Update - January 1, 2015: The initial comments towards my review, made by Norman Boutin himself, and which I quoted earlier, have been erased by Amazon. In their place, a whole new slew of comments between Norman and other commentators have begun. Many of these comments I have included in the part regarding ad hominems.

Update - February 5, 2015: Norman Boutin has hit a new low in his attack against critics. Recently he made these statements:
My sister was operated on this morning. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last Summer. She's been getting radiation and chemotherapy to prepare for the surgery. They took out the tumor today but her prognosis is very poor. The disease is 95% fatal.

It would have been nice if she'd lived to see Empress Theresa the great success it should be. But thanks to you internet trolls that won't be for several more years.

YOU PEOPLE ARE SCUM !!!!!!!!!!!!!

You better hope God will forgive you. I won't. [source]
Let me first say that, if it is true Norman Boutin's sister has cancer, that is terrible, and my thoughts and prayers go to him and her. I have had family members who suffered with cancer, and I know it is not a pleasant thing to go through. It gives me absolutely no pleasure that someone in his family has cancer. All that being said...

To use his sister's cancer to try to shame his critics for criticizing his book is a disgusting emotional tactic. I really have no other words for it.

If my readers are interested in an example of how not to react to criticism, Norman Boutin has reached the pinnacle of it.

4 comments:

  1. Sad... but entertaining nonetheless. Don't know the person, but he sounds like a fair few authors I've had the misfortune to meet. None were quite this pathetic though.

    That quote:

    "You better hope God will forgive you. I won't."

    Right out of a Steven Seagal movie. Still, it made me laugh. I just couldn't get that Skyrim quote out of my head afterwards...

    "Stendarr's mercy be upon you, for the vigil has none to spare." - Vigilant of Stendarr

    Btw, glad you added an email subscription. ;)

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    1. Ha ha ha! Why did an Elder Scrolls fan like myself not think of that quote? Geez. Good call!

      I'm tempted to remind Norman Boutin of what Christ said to Peter about forgiveness...

      Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven." [Matthew 18:21-22; NASB]

      ...however, I know that he would find some way to dance around it. It's really aggravating to see him deal with his critics, because he shifts goalposts like a corrupt FIFA official.

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